Today’s guest is Josh Bushinsky, Co-Founder & Partner at Trajectory Energy Partners.
Trajectory Energy Partners brings together landowners, electricity users, and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support.
Josh was born in Illinois, and at seven moved with his family to Rochester, New York, where he grew up backpacking. He brings to Trajectory Energy Partners a comprehensive appreciation and commitment to the environment, first working in energy as a visiting researcher at the University of Cape Town. An attorney by trade he has represented the renewable sector at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati, as well as worked with the Microgrid Investment Accelerator, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing.
Josh is proud to develop community solar in Illinois and remains an avid hiker — now sharing that skill with his children and family.
In today’s episode, we cover:
What led Josh to care about the environment, and his path before founding Trajectory Energy Partners
The opportunity they saw with community solar, and specifically in the midwest, where it is lesser known
Trajectory Energy approach, including how they handle community involvement
Criteria that makes a land parcel a good fit
Pitch to farmers and the benefits to them
Some of the biggest recurring concerns that come up from farmers and why
Benefits to the town of community solar
Resistance from utilities and why, and how legislation is required
Sellers market - more money out there than good projects
What success looks like for Trajectory
Long vision, and what opportunities lie in store in the future
Broader discussion about climate change and some of Josh’s ideas for the most impactful ways to help
Josh’s reflections, after many years working in this problem area
Links to topics discussed in this episode:
Trajectory Energy Partners: https://trajectoryenergy.com/
Stephen Schneider: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Schneider
Clean Air Act: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_Air_Act_(United_States)
White House Council on Environmental Quality: https://www.whitehouse.gov/ceq/
Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati: https://www.wsgr.com/WSGR/Default.aspx
The Paris Agreement: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
Renewable portfolio standard: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_portfolio_standard
Green bank: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_bank
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Enjoy the show!
Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Today's guest is Josh Bushinsky, co-founder and partner at Trajectory Energy Partners. Trajectory brings together land owners, electricity users and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support. Their team brings together a deep background in solar development, financing, and policy as well as agriculture and community engagement.
Jason Jacobs: Josh brings to Trajectory Energy Partners a comprehensive appreciation and commitment to the environment. First working in energy as a visiting researcher at the University of Cape Town, then he was an attorney where he represented the renewable sector at Wilson Soissons Goodrich & Rosati. He also worked with the Microgrid Investment Accelerator, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing.
Jason Jacobs: This is a different kind of episode in that it's a very local one, in the trenches, spending time with farmers, local communities, developing community solar on one piece of land, one project at a time. But it's also a critical piece of the equation, the last mile if you will, in that you can have all the policy in the world but if people aren't out there in the trenches, building the relationships, building the trust and doing good work day in and day out, project in and project out, we wouldn't be making any progress in the climate fight. So I really appreciate Josh's perspective in this episode, and I think you will as well.
Jason Jacobs: Josh Bushinsky, welcome to the show.
Josh Bushinsky: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Thanks for being here. I have to admit, although... So I think it was Dave [Leeb 00:01:59] that put us in touch, and I know you guys are old friends. And he and I... So he was doing Bump at the same time that I was doing Runkeeper, so we kind of grew up in mobile apps together. So we've only met once before, I still kind of feel like we're friends.
Jason Jacobs: So I had a busy day and something had to give, and so I did less prep for yours than the other ones because you're in the friend camp, so I'll just put that out there right to~ get started
Josh Bushinsky: That is fair, that is far. Well, I'm happy to chat, prep or no prep.
Jason Jacobs: But honestly, some of the best discussions have been no prep so, and we already met before, so I know enough to be dangerous. You're interesting because you... pretty much your whole career has been in and around climate. Even undergrad degree right?
Josh Bushinsky: Yeah, I knew very early on. I guess it just starts there. I got into climate because I was always interested in the environment and in fact I was cleaning out my high school papers, at some point recently, and found the model UN resolution that I wrote during high school model UN convincing the other 17-year-old delegates to adopt the Kyoto protocol.
Jason Jacobs: Well, that was not what I was doing in high school.[crosstalk 00:03:17]
Josh Bushinsky: It wasn't the only thing I was doing but those were the records I kept of the things I did. You know, this interest goes back but I had this really sentimental moment in my early intellectual interest in climate which was as a freshman in college. I took a seminar with Steve [Schneider 00:03:35] who's a climatologist and Steve was your quintessential science communicator. He was a brilliant climatologist, had done a lot of early climate research since the 70's and 80's, and he recognized that this was both a problem and a problem that needed policy solutions and that we needed to communicate about it.
Josh Bushinsky: If you can imagine this was a guy that went on Johnny Carson, who advised Al Gore, who was involved in the early IDCC process, and he taught a freshmen seminar. I took that seminar, was instantly hooked both on the scale of the problem -It seemed like something worth committing my career to - but also on the way that climate requires every discipline: something about economics, about policy, about science, and business and how you have to put those things together to do something.
Josh Bushinsky: I was really fortunate to work with Steve. I was his TA, was his research assistant. Unfortunately, he's not with us any longer but he inspired a cohort of students that I count myself among who are out in the world working on climate change.
Jason Jacobs: So you came out all fired up to enter the climate fight and where did you go?
Josh Bushinsky: Immediately I did my undergrad and masters at Stanford and immediately came here to D.C. where we're sweating in a heat emergency.
Jason Jacobs: It's audio so you can't tell by my shirt but if you did see my shirt-
Josh Bushinsky: You could tell we're in a heat emergency... I worked at what was then called the Pew Center on Global Climate change, it's now C2ES. This was a think tank that really pioneered some of the early work with businesses to engage on climate and was really working on, what are the economically rational solutions. We did a lot of early work, and this was the early 2000's so I was working at the state level. There wasn't a lot of movement in federal climate policy so I worked on the early-
Jason Jacobs: We're in such a different place now.
Josh Bushinsky: A theme of this conversation is going to be looking back on the last 20 years and seeing a lot of things come full circle unfortunately...
Josh Bushinsky: But, worked on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative New England, worked on AB32 which was Governor Schwarzenegger's key climate legislation: The Global Warming Solutions Act 2006. I was in D.C. and then I started Pew's office in Sacramento, which was me, and served on loan to advisory committees that the government put together to advise the state on how to implement a cap and trade program.
Josh Bushinsky: I worked on two of the early cap and trade programs and served as both models and unfortunately we thought that they were going to expand across the country, turned into federal legislation, and we'd have a giant market for carbon but that really hasn't been the story.
Jason Jacobs: That's the closest we came until now there's rumblings with the Green New Deal but there hasn't been any climate policy that's been even remotely as significant.
Josh Bushinsky: That was my feeling in 2007, 2008. I decided I was going to go to law school because I saw either the opportunity to do policy or the opportunity to do business related work was going to require a law degree and I thought, "Well look, if I go to law school in 2007..." This was right when Waxman Markey was becoming an opportunity and in fact I started at Chicago right when Obama was elected and I thought, "Look, I have lost my opportunity to be one of the parents of federal climate legislation because it's going to happen while I'm in law school."
Josh Bushinsky: Once again, here we are 10, 11 years later and-
Jason Jacobs: You're so lucky!
Josh Bushinsky: There's still that opportunity. If you spend a lot of time in D.C. you know the Clean Air Act has a lot of parents. A lot of people claimed parentage and I... Unfortunately there's still that opportunity for us to do that on climate.
Jason Jacobs: That's like tech startups though, like successful ones have 300 founders and unsuccessful ones have no founders.
Josh Bushinsky: Exactly. Well hopefully we get to claim some parentage in a couple years. We'll see what happens. But, that I thought was the opportunity cost of going to law school and I was absolutely wrong.
Jason Jacobs: So you got out of law school and then what?
Josh Bushinsky: I did a couple things in law school that really focused my interest in helping clean tech companies thrive. I spent some time in China just for a summer working at the Natural Resources Defense Council. That was eye opening because you could see the scale of the problem in a different way and partly I think that's just a function of being in a new environment and an emerging rapidly industrializing, rapidly developing country.
Josh Bushinsky: I'd ride my bike around Beijing know that 10 years prior I would've been one of tens of thousands in the street but now that streets were clogged with cars, there was still a little bit of room for bicycles left and I don't know if those bike lanes are still there. I also did two other things that sort of set my path in law school.
Josh Bushinsky: One was, I worked at the White House Council on Environmental equality for part of the summer and that's a really important federal agency that helps with a lot of the environmental related planning when you're building new infrastructure. I could also tell that the time for climate policy, in a ambitious way - simply because of what the electoral landscape looked like and what congress looked like - was not going anywhere.
Josh Bushinsky: I also spent some time at Wilson Soissons. It's a very large law firm based in Silicon Valley that's a tech focused, start-up focused law firm that had and still has a really robust clean energy practice. That was just really exciting. I got to represent clients who were doing just a wide variety of really exciting work on climate and clean energy.
Josh Bushinsky: That's where I went after law school. I spent almost five years representing clean tech companies that were doing everything from residential solar, utility scale solar, to run of the river hydro high altitude Navarino, building electrification, building controls, energy efficiency finance, everything from venture finance, project development, project finance, and it was great. We had-
Jason Jacobs: Sounds like this journey I'm on only with more of a deliverable and more of an income.
Josh Bushinsky: More of a deliverable, more of an income, a lot more paperwork. So-
Jason Jacobs: I don't have any of that.
Josh Bushinsky: We-
Jason Jacobs: Seems like a good trade though.
Josh Bushinsky: At different points you feel differently about that trade off. It was just fascinating to get to watch Silicon Valley grapple with how to finance clean energy. It was at the time after the bubble had burst around the first clean tech VC revolution and one of the thins that I think people started to realize is that venture is not well suited through hardware deployment and scaling business models in clean energy don't always make for VC returns.
Josh Bushinsky: How you get around that and how you use VC money? Which is very willing to take risk to do things where you may not hit your 10X on any company, in your portfolio at least, the way the world looked in 2011, 2012 was something that I think we're still grappling with.
Jason Jacobs: I totally agree and it's something that... I mean think, when I think I started this journey seven months ago innovation was one of the first places I looked when looking at climate because innovation is all that I know and I was fairly disillusioned. At least initially coming in because it seemed like a lot of the innovation either was very missioner focused, but didn't have great potential for scale, or it had great potential for scale and it either had a greenish tent but wasn't really putting de carbonization in the problem at the center. Or it had 10 years in the lab and 2 billion dollars for an MVP plant, and lots of science risk, and huge cap on [tensity 00:12:13] and reliance on project finance, and all these things that I just didn't know anything about and wasn't necessarily wired for in terms of patience and no PhD and things like that.
Jason Jacobs: I think the other thing for me is just that I found the climate as such a systems problem that you can't just focus on one area... If you want to solve an aspect of it, it takes multiple things right? It's not just going to be innovation, it's not just going to be policy, right? It's going to take research, it's going to take innovation, it's going to take policy, it's going to take government, it's going to take different types of capital. It looks a lot different so some of the people that have been coming at it in a multi pronged way are really intriguing to me verses like... And not to take away from being a founder or being a funder but at least thus far it just seems like it's only one piece of a bigger puzzle of required elements.
Josh Bushinsky: And that's exactly, look there is an enormous amount of systemic inertia that we're fighting against and you need the people who are doing the big systems thinking. You also need the people who know how to execute and the people who see the opportunities whether it's integrating distributed energy into the grid, whether it's doing the basic R and D to get higher efficiency solar, or whether it's thinking about new forms of mobility. You need all of those things.
Josh Bushinsky: Silicon Valley is really good at scaling software companies and it's where a lot of the smartest engineers end up and where a lot of climate solutions come from. Whether it's academic places like Stanford or Berkeley, or whether it's from the national labs or so on. At the same time we need other ways of funding that work and you need the R and D pipeline and money that is really hard to get private sector companies to invest in much less VC that doesn't want to take a lot of technology risks.
Jason Jacobs: So you have that nugget of insight while you're a lawyer and what'd you do with it?
Josh Bushinsky: First of all, I did a lot of deals so we represented some great clients who were doing really innovative work. Some of them are self thriving, some of them are no longer with us. That's sort of the nature of start-ups. What I did was a lot of deal work. What I also realized was that this was an industry that I was really excited about, that I wanted to continue my career supporting but I knew that being at a law firm, as many people find, was not where I wanted to be for the rest of my life.
Josh Bushinsky: Frankly, I stayed for so long because I had great colleagues and great clients and great work. Five years in law firm years is a lot of years in human years so at the end of about my four and a half years in I had an opportunity to move her to D.C. to do something totally different. I went to work in government.
Josh Bushinsky: I went to the U.S. Government's Development Finance Institution which oversees private investment corporation, OPEC and OPEC finances development projects all over the world, does everything from dairies to AG to health equipment but the reason I went there was because OPEC was becoming a huge force in how the U.S. government was making good on it's obligations under the Paris Agreement and investing in emerging market renewables. Everything from large scale wind to off grid microgrids. About a year working on some, what we call, "blended finance facilities" to put together concessional finance, OPEC financing, and private finance to drive investment in emerging markets to solve energy access, to solve climate change, and to bring economic development in countries that desperately need all three.
Jason Jacobs: Why don't you tell me about Trajectory Energy Partners because that's what you're doing now but then it'd also be great to just hear about... because I think, unlike some guests that I've had on you have quite a diverse background within the climate world so it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on whether there's common... Whether Trajectory is like the culmination of all the different things you've done or what made it the right thing for you to really anchor on.
Josh Bushinsky: Trajectory Energy Partners is a relatively new company. We are a solar development company. What that means is we work to build solar projects with strong local support. My partners all came from different backgrounds but we had two things in common; One was really deep experience financing and developing solar projects and the second is a deep and firm understanding of politics and policy as it relates to both building community support for something, but also engaging with policy to get projects done.
Josh Bushinsky: I got connected with a couple partners who have those two qualities. One of my partners [John Carson 00:17:55] was actually Obama's national field director in 2008 and then worked in the White House in a variety of positions, and then went to Solar City where he ran their solar ambassador program. John brings, obviously, this strong background in community organizing. He's run campaigns for decades, but he's an engineer at heart and by training and he really wanted to build solar.
Josh Bushinsky: Similarly, my colleague [Megan Strands 00:18:20] spent about 10 years at Chadbourne, which is now Norton Rose Law Firm, representing banks that were investing in solar. She brings a deep understanding of what banks are looking for when they develop solar.
Josh Bushinsky: My colleague, David [Lipowhitz 00:18:34] similarly has a extremely long background, first as a political organizer and then doing solar development. Did a bunch of Amazon's projects while he was at Solar City and has worked at of developers.
Josh Bushinsky: We all came away with the same conclusion based on our careers which is: One, solar development requires really high commitment to doing quality work because it's complicated, frankly. We need to both, make sure that when we do a project we're satisfying the local community, we are creating a projects that banks are going to be willing to finance that we're building a project that is not going to get flooded and wash away in the storms that we're seeing in the Midwest right now.
Josh Bushinsky: Trajectory is focused on doing high quality development with local support. We are focused in the Midwest and mid atlantic. Those are places, particularly in the Midwest, where solar is a new type of development that people aren't used to seeing. One of the things that we are really proud of is that we work really hard to engage with local communities to help educated them about the benefits of solar, about what to expect so that if we develop a project in a community we want to be welcomed back.
Josh Bushinsky: This is the kind of work that is going to be critical, not just to deploy solar skill but to deploy a lot of they types of climate solutions that you and your guests talk about. We need new financing models, we need new policy, but we also need that face-to-face personal engagement which is going to both ensure that there is support for solutions and that we're able to deploy them.
Jason Jacobs: When you say develop what role are you guys actually taking on in the process?
Josh Bushinsky: We are early stage developers which means we will go out and, using a combination of GIS and our experience understanding what makes a good solar project, identify certain parcels, approach a land owner, and agree with them to lease their land to try to develop solar for 30 plus years. We need to make sure that project is close to a place we can interconnect it to the grid and then we need to do all the early work making sure we have the permits we need, that we have an agreement with the utility, that we have someone that is willing to buy the power, someone who's willing to buy the rec's if there are rec's, someone who is willing to finance that project and to own that asset in the long run. We really have to put together a lot of different threads to build a successful project. That's what solar development looks like and it means you need a pretty diverse set of skills to build a high quality portfolio.
Jason Jacobs: From a landowners standpoint what's the pitch?
Josh Bushinsky: We have mostly land owners who are looking at their land and saying, "I can continue farming or letting this lie foul because I don't have something else I can do with it." Or in certain areas they're thinking, "Well is this going to become a strip mall or residential development in the next 10 or 15 years?" Now, if it's the latter that they think there's going to be a strip mall that wants to buy their land in the next 10 years, that's probably not a good place for solar whether or not that's true.
Josh Bushinsky: What we provide our land owners is the ability to say, "Every year I'm going to get rent from this solar project." And that's incredibly powerful for farmers who face extremely uncertain income. You look what's happening just this year, right? So corn across the Midwest is having an incredibly hard time. There's been flooding, there's been massive rains and you need a couple days for your fields to dry out to be able to plant. Let me just tell you as an aside, I've learned a lot more about corn farming in the last two years than I knew before and frankly that's one of the joys of this job is working with local communities and understanding where they're coming from.
Josh Bushinsky: If you can't plant corn or if the corn crop is effected by flooding or heat waves, like we're seeing across the Midwest, or any number of weather events which, you know, are becoming more extreme then you're facing a lot of uncertainty. Not to mention tariff battles and so on that are going to effect corn and soy pricing. What we say to farmers, "We're going to take that uncertainty out of your income stream for the next 30 years." That's really powerful. At the same time we're going to generate tax revenue for your community and we're going to bring you clean energy.
Josh Bushinsky: The types of projects that we build and that we're focused on are typically in the two to 20 megawatts. You're talking 15 to 20 acres to 50, 100 plus. These are not 100, 200 megawatts that you're interconnecting to the transmission lines. These are a smaller project but it means that you're in a lot of communities and you have to think about what's this community going to expect. They're going to have a lot of questions and part of what we do is we have to educate communities for whom solar is new.
Jason Jacobs: What are some of the biggest misconceptions or surprises for communities when you're in there doing your education?
Josh Bushinsky: For most of your listeners solar is old hat. We know a lot about it, we're comfortable with it and it's just a question of deploying it, but for a lot of the communities we work in we're the first person who's ever talked to them about solar. Some of the questions range from some things that we might think are a little silly to some things that you may not think of off the top of your head.
Josh Bushinsky: For instance, weird that we're developing in Poplar Grove Illinois and the farmer just to the north actually used to own the land that we're developing on and he said, "Look, I'm concerned about the drainage." You got to understand across the Midwest we have replaced tall grass prairie with drainage tile. That drainage tile is what keeps these farms alive because, massive flooding aside, keeps water in the ground, drains it and it makes this reliable place for farming. So they're really worried that you're going to puncture drainage tile, they're really worried that you're going to do something else that effects how water runs over the land and it's really critical. You got to understand that.
Josh Bushinsky: So we get those types of questions. We get questions, not so much the, "Are my lights going to go out if the sun doesn't shine?" It turns out that actually real people are more sophisticated than the pundits who say that sort of thing. We get a lot of questions about, "Are the panels going to reflect and burn down my house or blind me on the road as I drive by or electrocute my children or so on?" So we have to spend a lot of time talking about the safety and the performance, and how to integrate this new technology into their communities because if you drive down the road and you expect: corn field, silo, mall. This is something new and you're going to have questions and reasonably so.
Jason Jacobs: Once the solar goes in who accesses it? Who's the end customer?
Josh Bushinsky: A lot of the projects that we're developing are, what are know as Community Solar Projects. Community Solar is a really interesting way to both build support for solar, build financing for solar, and give people access to supporting solar who couldn't otherwise, right? So the idea is simply that you can subscribe to a Community Solar Project. So we build the project, you subscribe to it, then you are credited for the production of that solar project or the portion of it that you subscribed to.
Josh Bushinsky: It's a really powerful tool because if you're a renter, if you have trees over your house, if you have an old roof, there's any number of reasons why a individual couldn't put solar on the place they live. Community Solar solves the problem of how do those people support solar and at the same time it also, particularly the way it's been structured in the U.S., allows us to put solar in a distributed fashion across the grid which has a lot of benefits to the grid. I think it's got another benefit as well, which is that you're building comfort with comfort with this partly because you have companies like mine out in the world telling people about solar giving land owners a reason to support it and giving farmers another income stream. Having people save money on their electricity bills from supporting a project in their community.
Josh Bushinsky: There's a part of it which is about sort of [inaudible 00:27:41] a lasting solar in some sense that's actually pretty powerful and it's one of the reasons why Community Solar is an interesting model. It's not the only type of project that we develop, but it is a really interesting way to deploy solar.
Jason Jacobs: When you say they get credit for it does that mean that they've still got whatever other energy source they were already getting from the grid?
Josh Bushinsky: Typically the way it works is that they will subscribe to a project which means they enter into a contract with the project and the utility is typically responsible for giving them a bill credit equal to the amount that they subscribed for. If you produce 50 kilowatt hours from the Community Solar Project that you subscribed to that gets credited off your bill. The utilities, obviously, have an interest in keeping that number pretty low but that's one of the challenges with this model is that you have to work closely with utilities to implement them and it's why it requires legislation for one thing and it's why it is not as straight forward as just simply being able to get clean energy through your utility.
Jason Jacobs: What type of legislation does it require?
Josh Bushinsky: You essentially have to force the utilities to set up this bill crediting mechanism where you have to tell them that they have to allow you to subscribe to Community Solar Project and to credit you the amount that's been produced.
Jason Jacobs: So because this Community Solar Project is contributing energy to the grid it's crediting back to the consumer for the energy that they subscribed to. So they're paying you but the utility is crediting them meaning that you're getting the revenue that the utility otherwise would have gotten?
Josh Bushinsky: Precisely.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. But the utility still gets the energy. It's a wash right? It's not like they're doing it at a loss it's just less incremental revenue?
Josh Bushinsky: It's less incremental revenue for them and it means another level of complication as well. They've got to administer this program. Community solar is not simple to administer although there are a lot of companies that are figuring out how to do this. We're not in the subscription management business and there are a lot of companies that are and they do interesting and really important work and I think some of your guests are in that business but that's not what we do. We're really about putting these projects together and then letting someone else deal with the software problem of how to manage these subscriptions and interact with the utility.
Jason Jacobs: Are these basically one off construction projects? Is that a way to look at them?
Josh Bushinsky: Yeah, I would say in some sense the closest analog is real estate development. That's really what we're doing except that we're engaging with the electricity infrastructure as your added complication menu layer on top of that construction financing, permit financing, tax equity, rec sales, et cetera. There's a lot of pieces to it but... And we don't do construction. We'll take a project until it's ready to construct, sell it to one of our partners - we have a bunch of great partners who are looking for projects that they want to own long term - and then once we've gotten it to that point and we have a partner that we are confident can take that project and own it for the next 30 years that's sort of the end point for us.
Jason Jacobs: What's required up front to get a business like this going? Does it take a lot of capital?
Josh Bushinsky: Yes and no. We can be pretty capital efficient because a lot of what we're doing is just getting out into the world and identifying sites. There's some up front costs in terms of personnel, but really where it starts becoming more expensive is as you're doing the permitting work, as you're doing the technical studies, the interconnection studies, the geo tech. A lot of the early stage development costs are nontrivial
Jason Jacobs: Is there any world where you're doing those before a projects been committed?
Josh Bushinsky: Yes. Oh yeah, Oh yeah.
Jason Jacobs: So you do them like on spec essentially?
Josh Bushinsky: Right, and that's this business. We are arguably the riskiest, most uncertain part of solar development is this early staged development.
Jason Jacobs: Does the upside reflect that?
Josh Bushinsky: Hopefully, usually, but it's actually really interesting because the market is now such that investors are increasingly recognizing the value of solar and other renewable assets both from the perspective that there's a seven plus percent return that you can see consistently over long run, but also because you're looking at assets that are going to reliably generate revenue over the next 20 to 30 years and those are hard investments to find. There are a lot of asset managers who are increasingly interested in this sector. What that means is right now we see that it's sort of a sellers market in terms of high quality development assets. There's more money than good projects and so we feel pretty confident right now that we're in the right part of this market. It's not the place to be if you want to be comfortable that you're not taking a lot of risks. You've got to do a lot of work up front before you start seeing revenue.
Jason Jacobs: What's the goal with all of this? What does success look like?
Josh Bushinsky: Success for Trajectory means a couple things. First is, we want to be good partners. Partners is in our name, not only because I have some great partners in this business but we want to be a good partner to our land owners. We want to be good partners to the communities we work in, and we want to be a good partner to our investors, our long term asset owners, our financing partners.
Josh Bushinsky: What success looks for us though, I think really about upping the game in early stage development. We think it's important to do a really good job working with local communities. If you look at a state, for instance just turn north Maryland, they just signed an RPS that is going to require something like six sacks the amount of solar they've deployed thus far. It's a huge increase. There's not a ton of land in Maryland to do that. If you are thoughtful about how you are going to be developing projects communities will welcome you back and if you're not you're going to cross off counties, cities, towns from being a place where you can reliably develop solar.
Josh Bushinsky: We've already seen in some of the places we've worked where other developers have not done a great job of communicating or following up, or being engaged members of the community and those broken promises are terrible for our industry. For us success is about doing a good job in execution so that we have communities we can go back to and build solar again and so that our partners want to keep building with us as well. That's success.
Josh Bushinsky: Now, compared to a lot of the Silicon Valley style software, our partners who work on subscriptions this scales in a very different way. There are definitely development shops that have scaled very very quickly but that comes with a lot of risk as well. Either they're taking on a lot of debt, they can't service, or making other compromises, in terms of project quality or their other commitments there partners that they're not able to uphold. We are trying to be really thoughtful about how we grow and that requires a high level of confidence that our model works. We've got to be sure that we're doing a good job with our project development and we need to be sure that we have the right partners who are invested in the long run and see the value in the projects we're building.
Jason Jacobs: Where does climate change fit into all this?
Josh Bushinsky: I think they're two big takeaways from the kind of work that we're doing from a climate perspective. Number one is you just have to have people who are doing this kind of work. You have to execute well in deployment. The radical changes require the radical infrastructure investment required, the radical fossil retirements that are required mean that we need to execute on the energy transition across transit, across energy, across the built environment and that requires solid execution.
Jason Jacobs: You guys are like the last mile kind of thing.
Josh Bushinsky: That's precisely right. It's like the front line of the last mile. However you want to think about it you can have innovative financing models, and they're critical and I've worked on the, and you can have better customer engagement and you can do all sorts of things to scale these solutions but at the end of the day you need to have people who are out there bringing solar to rooftops, to farmland, to desserts. It really is about being... Yeah, that's our last mile provider because we don't get there otherwise. I think some of the things that we're learning about solar deployment are applicable across a wide range of climate solutions. It's not just, "We're going to build a better widget." You got to sell them and you have to have communities support them.
Jason Jacobs: You have your work cut of for you but something... I don't mean you have your work cut out for you like you haven't [crosstalk 00:37:51]. I mean you have your work cut out for you meaning like you're focused trying to get a young company into orbit. Something for you to think about though is that if there are other areas that could use this expertise then it's like what are the pieces that are transferable and what are the pieces that are domain specific, and is there some... If you were to think more ambitiously and maybe from a higher risk, higher up side but also higher impact on a problem standpoint then is there some type of holding company, for example, that could attack different verticals and have a model of partnership where you collaborate with the domain expertise that you're lacking but you bring stuff that is transferable, community organizing et cetera.
Josh Bushinsky: I think that's right and I think you're seeing some models of that in financing. You're seeing people figure out how to do these deals more replicable across domains. Solar development, storage development don't look that different. We do them together. There are plenty of other opportunities like that. We're focused on this one vertical but there certainly are opportunities to do something like this model in other realms.
Josh Bushinsky: I would say it's one of the things that my career has taught me is you've got to put your shoulder to the wheel wherever you are and climate requires that in a lot of places. I think as you've been thinking about where you engage... It seems to me like one of the questions you're asking a lot is, "How can I be most effective?" You know I ask myself that question all the time and I think a lot of people who work on climate think about personal efficacy because you have to. At the same time you got to find the right land for you. One of the things I love about Trajectory is that, for me, I get to use so many different skill sets in a week. I will do everything from sitting at a farmers literal kitchen table negotiating a lease, to engaging with state regulators to help them improve their policy deployment, to working our financing partners to get our projects across the finish line, to doing a lot of operations related work and making sure we're doing things as efficiently as we can. I love that.
Josh Bushinsky: I get to engage all parts of my and all parts of my experience as a lawyer, a policy person and I think it's a really interesting set of problems to tackle and it's problems that need to get solved. I think there are a lot lessons out of the work that we're doing that are applicable in other verticals and then at the same time if you have too much fromo about it you don't focus on what you need to be doing.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, it's like anything. It's a constant struggle. The grass always greener. If you take a step back if we do want to see more solar, more renewables, more clean energy, more zero carbon energy... If we want de carbonization to occur faster and more effectively what would be the one thing that if you could change anything, either domestically or globally or answer it with whatever's going to have the highest impact, what would be the one thing that you'd put in place that's not in place today?
Josh Bushinsky: I would say the one type of institution if I was going to answer the question in that way... Setting politics aside, setting other sort of other snap our fingers magical thinking... I think one type of institution that would be enormously powerful is a national institution that mandate required investment in climate solutions and included in that mandate was an ambition to expand the set of projects, the set of technologies that it could finance. Because we have solar financing down pretty well. We have storage financing down pretty well. We have wind financing down pretty well. We don't necessarily have financing solutions for lots of the other technologies, infrastructure investments that are going to be necessary to tackle climate change.
Josh Bushinsky: Having a dedicated institution that both at scale and at the edge of financial innovation was working to build the products we need, the financial products we need, to solve climate change. I think that would be an enormously powerful institution.
Jason Jacobs: Isn't that a government institution?
Josh Bushinsky: Well, yeah, so there are different ways to do this but there are a couple example of these around the country: there's Connecticut green bank in our backyard, Montgomery County has a green bank, D.C. is putting together a green bank, there are some examples and people are starting to work on this in emerging markets. The development bank of South Africa is setting up a green bank.
Jason Jacobs: So where isn't it then? Because if that's your wish it sounds like it's already happening.
Josh Bushinsky: I just named 50 percent of all green banks in the world.
Jason Jacobs: So, more? More coverage?
Josh Bushinsky: It's not just... It's also scale. So these are institutions who don't necessarily have the resources or the independence or the stability to do this. So, yeah, that's like naming three small solar developers when what we need are a 10X Sun Run, a 10X SolarCity, et cetera.
Jason Jacobs: That was the broad question but what about on a more narrow basis, your slice if you could change one thing that would unlock the trajectory for Community Solar what would it be?
Josh Bushinsky: Aside from a really ambitious national RPS you would not believe how difficult local regulations, both from utilities and zoning ordinances, make it to build solar.
Jason Jacobs: If it's anything like local regulations around other stuff then I would believe it.
Josh Bushinsky: It is mind boggling. Two years ago I had only scratched the surface of how difficult this was. It wasn't something I was doing day-to-day. As a lawyer this was not... Projects would come to me and they would have done this. Did not realize the incredible amount of work, number of meetings, the amount of time and frankly, there just not written or built for consistent solar development and they're different in every jurisdiction.
Josh Bushinsky: You would not believe the plethora of different zoning regulations. These are in places that are allowing solar, if not by right which it would be great but by special used permit process. I've now done this dozens of times. It is incredible the amount of paperwork and the amount of face time that goes into it. I love educating communities about solar, I love engaging with local officials. I love helping people understand how solar will benefit their community but the reason that soft cost for solar are so high in this country, higher than they need to be for us to do responsible development, is because you've got a patch or a quilt of really burdensome regulations that make it really hard to build solar.
Josh Bushinsky: That's no different for lots of other climate solutions. In D.C. building a new bike lane is incredibly difficult and I bike my kids to school everyday. There are a million places where it'd be completely reasonable to build a bike lane but that kind of change is difficult from a regulatory perspective and frankly, it's difficult from a what your communities expectations perspective is. I don't actually see a lot of differences sometimes between building solar, in the places that we're working, and building a new bike lane.
Jason Jacobs: What the answer?
Josh Bushinsky: We can't undermined a couple centuries of federalism and there's only so much you can do on model rules. The way that federal government typically has done this is created intensives for states and local jurisdictions to adopt things but it's a [inaudible 00:46:30]. It's really hard and you can do a lot of education and the government can do a lot but also it's often about what kind of community engagement you can do on a local level and that is a lot of work but it needs to get done if we're going to have bike lanes and if we're going to have solar.
Josh Bushinsky: I wish I could wave a magic wand but I can't so this, like a lot of climate solutions... And this kind of gets back to the kind of work Trajectory does and that I think is powerful is you got to put your shoulder to the wheel and do the local engagement and educate people and help them understand what you're trying to do and why you're trying to do it and why it shouldn't be threatening. That's not always going to work but it's really critical.
Josh Bushinsky: Let me give you an example of that, we have projects we're developing with a county in Peoria, so central Illinois, it's a set of projects both with the count and with local land owners who we did some early engagement with and we got the city interested. We got the county interested and we worked with the county administrator who is great who totally got the idea and then we worked with the local unions who are excited about building the projects, local environmental groups but then we also had to work with the neighbors and make sure they were... Drainage again, they were concerned about drainage because that is the concern and reasonably so. What it meant was we went to the zoning board with this set of projects and we actually went three or more times but we had a lot of voices and support. We had no objections and because we were the first ones in the county we had to be the ones to educate the zoning board and the community about the benefits of solar.
Josh Bushinsky: It was great and, let me say something else about our model, we work with really great local partners. In Illinois we work with [Colleen Callahan 00:48:37], [Colleen 00:48:37] is just this incredible woman who has been working in and around agriculture in Illinois for 40 years and I never once, in the 18 plus months that we worked together, walked into a room in Illinois where someone did not know her. It was incredible.
Josh Bushinsky: We have a project that is with the local cemetery association and we walked into the cemetery associations office and there are five or six people from the board of the cemetery association and I think to a person they knew her. [Colleen 00:49:09], including a career working in broadcasting, she was the USDA development director during the Obama administration and sadly for us but incredibly for her she is now secretary of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She's no longer a partner of Trajectory's but she's the kind of partner we love to work with who understands the community and who knows what people's concerns are and who helps us be responsive to those concerns. That's the kind of work you need to do and we think it pays dividens both for us and across the industry. That rising tide we think lifts all boats and it's important for us to maintain our standards and really engage and do high quality work and make communities happy but also make our investors happy. That's, at the end of the day, success.
Jason Jacobs: If you had a big pot of money, say 100 billion dollars, and you could put it towards anything to maximize this impact on the climate fight where would it go? How would you allocate it?
Josh Bushinsky: I'd give some of it, if it hadn't already been funded, to National Green Bank. I think there are two other places where I would invest. A lot of people try and say should we do research or deployment and I'm definitely a both kind of person but there is long term R and D that we should be working on across disciplines and I would put a quarter of it to the long term R and D whether it's grid integration of renewables or whether it's more thoughtful infrastructure development, the water energy nexus, et cetera.
Josh Bushinsky: A lot of that money also needs to go to retiring dirty assets. We have dirty asset infrastructure that we need to close down. We need to close down coal. We need to close down natural gas. We need to wean ourselves off of oil. We need to electrify everything. I'm sure this is a common theme you've heard. Whether that is rent payments to the companies that have an expectation that those assets will continue operating or whether that's just mastic public bond to do major infrastructure improvement, that's where we need that money to go. That needs to happen aggressively, quickly, and that's also going to create an opportunity for companies like Trajectory but a whole swoon of companies to step in and fill those gaps.
Josh Bushinsky: One of the most powerful things that's happened in the last couple of years, along with some other actors, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has been retiring coal plants across the country. It's incredibly powerful work and it's not just the climate benefits. I think the thing that increasingly we need to focus on is air quality in the U.S. should be a huge driver for these improvements. We see the impacts in terms of low birth weights, asthma on kids and adults. There's research showing that there is clear impacts of high particulate concentrations in the atmosphere just makes it harder to think. Kids do worse on tests, workers do worse. I think there's a study looking at a pear picking... It is clear that air pollution is terrible for people's welfare and that's true in the U.S. but it's even more of a driver in emerging markets.
Josh Bushinsky: While I was at OPEC I did a fair amount of work in India working on deployment of off grid solar and you go to Delhi, you go to Mumbai and the air quality is just terrible. When I lived in China I didn't exercise the entire time I was there because you didn't want to breathe that air. The co-benefits to getting off of coal and fossil fuels are huge and climate should be, obviously I think, our number one motivation but it results in a better world. It's something that I think we need to focus on more. So dirty asset retirement I think is critical and it's going to take a huge amount of money and political will. You know, we haven't talked a lot about politics and I think that's reasonable but you can't have this conversation in a vacuum. It's hard to see where we get that political support for the radical reinvention of the infrastructure that's required.
Jason Jacobs: So what?
Josh Bushinsky: It's a terrible way to end on a heat emergency day in Washington D.C. Look, at the end of the day I am... I like to think of myself as a hopeful optimist but I also think hope is something that you have to build yourself. You've got to work and create hope in the work you're doing and climate is a big wall to bang your head against. I've done it my entire career and it would be hard to go back to 18-year-old Josh and say, "Hey look. 20 years on this is where we're at." I think that would be pretty demoralizing to him but I wouldn't have wanted to do anything different and I still think there's a lot of runway for good work to be done.
Jason Jacobs: I agree or I wouldn't be here. I think that's a good point to end on but this was great. You definitely bring a different perspective that we hadn't had yet on the pod or in my learning journey so I'm very glad to have this discussion today and thanks a lot for coming on the show.
Josh Bushinsky: My pleasure, thanks for being on this journey.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co note that is .co not .com. Someday we'll get the .com but right now, .co. You can also find me on Twitter at @jjacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. Before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that, thank you.